Hawaii reported 243 new coronavirus cases Thursday, the highest single-day total since January, and officials warned a highly contagious variant will keep the numbers rising.

Health officials noted the cases are spread throughout the islands and said the majority of infections are among people who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“What we’re seeing here is widespread community transmission around the state,” Brooks Baehr, spokesman for the Health Department, said at a press conference.

The state also reported three deaths on Thursday, including a fully vaccinated woman between the ages of 60 and 69 who had multiple underlying conditions, raising the state’s total to 527.

Health officials urge people in Hawaii to wear masks indoors. Denby Fawcett/Civil Beat/2020

A week of triple-digit cases in Hawaii has sparked growing concern about the spread of the Delta variant, which has been blamed for a nationwide surge.

“What we are seeing is rapid and exponential rise and it is showing no signs of diminishing. It is continuing to increase,” Janet Berreman, Kauai District Health Officer, said. “The fact that the Delta variant is so much more highly transmissible means we do need to expect continued rapid increase in case counts.”

The increase comes after state and county officials had moved cautiously to ease COVID-19 restrictions, including allowing vaccinated travelers to fly to Hawaii without having to quarantine or take a COVID-19 test amid an influx of tourists.

Honolulu also moved into Tier 5 of its pandemic reopening plan this month, allowing indoor social gatherings of up to 25 people and outdoor social gatherings of up to 75 people.

A previous version of this story incorrectly said Honolulu moved to Tier 4, not Tier 5.

Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi expressed concern about the uptick in cases but defended the city’s decision to lift most restrictions on gatherings.

“We continue to make solid progress as a community in our fight against COVID,” Blangiardi told reporters separately. “At this point vaccinations are key to easing restrictions, and hopefully ending the tier system altogether. We are in this fight together, and if you have yet to get your vaccination, I strongly urge you to do so as soon as possible.”

He said he doesn’t plan to tighten regulations despite the rise in cases, citing the fact that more than 70% of eligible residents on Oahu have been vaccinated.

“That’s nearly three out of four people,” he said. “That’s a level of cooperation from the community to fight back against this disease that really should be admired.”

Berreman said the sharp jump in cases statewide is driven by both the Delta variant and “the increase in travel largely by residents traveling to the mainland and coming home.”

The Delta variant was to blame for 55% of the recent cases, said state laboratories division administrator Edward Desmond, adding that he expects the new strain to double every two weeks until it’s responsible for all of Hawaii’s cases.

“Our latest variant report showed that in the period ending on July 3, 55% of the collected COVID-19 specimens were of the Delta variant,” Desmond said.

Baehr noted that Las Vegas, a popular destination for Hawaii residents, has a COVID-19 positivity rate of 12.7%.

Hawaii’s positivity rate is 3.9%, a 185% increase between July 7 and July 20, according to the state’s data page. Positivity rates are highest on Hawaii island at 5.3% and Oahu at 4.3%.

Health officials blamed community transmission for most of the cases, including a single cluster with 31 infections at an Oahu bar. Officials also urged residents to get vaccinated.

Nearly 60% of Hawaii’s population is fully inoculated and 66% have received at least one dose, but the rate of vaccinations has slowed considerably due to lack of interest, lack of access and other barriers.

Sixty-six of the 243 cases reported Thursday were among children under the age of 18. Children under the age of 12 are still ineligible to be vaccinated.

Baehr said most of the recent cases were among people who have not been inoculated.

“They are unvaccinated who are not wearing masks indoors, they are unvaccinated who are traveling,” Baehr said.

Baehr said more than 98% of those who died from the virus have been unvaccinated. The death of the woman Thursday was the second reported COVID-19 death of a vaccinated person in Hawaii.

“Unfortunately we see that unvaccinated adults are still infecting children who are not eligible to be vaccinated. The vaccines are safe, they are tremendously effective and the vaccines are free and you can get one near you,” Baehr said.

“Get vaccinated. Wear masks when you’re indoors. Stay at home if you don’t feel well. Practice good hygiene, wash your hands frequently and if you have symptoms we encourage you to please get tested,” he continued.

The state is offering free testing at the Wahiawa Civic Center on Saturday morning from 8 a.m. to noon, Baehr said.

Civil Beat reporter Lauren Teruya contributing reporting to this story.

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